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Cutting through the din of the dotcom age

The real battle was waged with the Internet.

December 20, 2009|By Susan Salter Reynolds >>>

This generation's literary grandparents (I'm speaking of America) placed a high value on plain honest fiction. It was the generation with the first almost-clear view of sky through the rubble of World War II. The most successful writers relied heavily on magazines like the New Yorker, Harper's and the Atlantic. In these cozy havens, they could work with one editor for decades, polishing, refining and simplifying their styles and voices. The result was a kind of calm cultural overview that often seemed elitist and sometimes was. The audience took a back seat to the writing life; "Let them eat cake!" If they don't like it, there's always, well, television.

The next generation -- Tobias Wolff, Joy Williams, Raymond Carver and so many others -- had their mentors and their writers groups, but the audience mattered more. It had to. This generation relied heavily on the academy and on grants. Today, young writers do not have the luxury of ignoring their audience. Book deals depend heavily on the audience the author brings with them. There is less money, and the money buys less.

Writers write what they write, a path up and out of one generation's burden, one strangulating set of cultural norms into the future, regardless. But fiction, generally speaking, has been affected by this shrinking market, this smaller pie, largely in the last decade. It is more interactive, in very subtle ways. It tries to do more with less. Plot twists can be interpreted in many ways. Reality is layered, archaeological. Perspective shifts. The narrator is hardly ever reliable. Voices labor under the weight of excessive irony. Morality is more elusive as well. The poor reader searches for truth like a needle in a haystack.

James Frey and other writers forced the issue of truth through the marketing keyhole: What are these categories we call fiction, nonfiction and memoir? As in all times of doubt and confusion, readers called for rules. But true book people make terrible bureaucrats. So there is more babble, more static, and you can see this in much modern fiction. Language, what Thomas Wentworth Higginson called in his 1862 "Letter to a Young Contributor," which ran in the Atlantic, a "fascination of the syllables," is often a luxury, secondary to character or plot or, heaven help us, the message.

I could end the decade that began for so many of us with Sebald (who, of course, had been writing for years but hadn't truly percolated through book culture) happily with Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist," a novel that has the honest clarity of his literary forebears and the sense of cutting a path through the noise, not to mention a return to the lifeboat of language, the fifth beat in the four-beat line, the one we need to be fully conscious to truly hear; awake, alert and ready to read.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

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